roe v. wade

Amy Coney Barrett’s Adoption Myths

“They’re co-opting our lives and our stories.”

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Erin Schaff-Pool/Getty Images
Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Erin Schaff-Pool/Getty Images

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Twice in oral arguments this week for the abortion case that could overturn Roe v. Wade, Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett asked pro-choice advocates: Would banning abortion be so bad if women could just drop their newborns at the fire station for someone else to adopt? She conceded that forced pregnancy and birth are “an infringement on bodily autonomy,” but suggested, misleadingly, that the real choice is between having a later abortion and “the state requiring the woman to go 15, 16 weeks more and then terminate parental rights at the conclusion.” If advocates for abortion rights were so worried that “the consequences of parenting and the obligations of motherhood that flow from pregnancy” would harm women, asked Barrett, who adopted two children from Haiti, “Why don’t the safe-haven laws take care of that problem?”

The attorney for the clinics, Julie Rikelman, reminded Barrett that it’s 75 times more dangerous to give birth in Mississippi than to have a pre-viability abortion, disproportionately threatening the lives of women of color in particular. U.S. Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar said citing laws where parents can relinquish their newborns, no questions asked, “overlooks the consequences of forcing upon her the choice of having to decide whether to give a child up for adoption. That itself is its own monumental decision for her.” People who have lived and studied the realities of adoption also had a lot to say about Barrett’s blithe solution — one that drew on a well-established conservative political strategy to put adoption forward as the kinder face of the anti-abortion movement.

The day after oral arguments, I had a conversation with Angela Tucker, a transracial adoptee, host of The Adoptee Next Door, and media consultant; Kate Livingston, Ph.D., a birth parent and educator of women’s, gender, and sexuality studies; Kathryn Joyce, journalist and author of The Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking, and the New Gospel of Adoption; and sociologist Gretchen Sisson, Ph.D., who studies abortion, adoption, and reproductive decision-making in the United States.

Irin Carmon: I wonder how each of you felt when you heard Amy Coney Barrett’s remarks.
Kate Livingston:  I am one of those people that grew up in the pro-life community and did a lot of pro-life activism. You would find me working for Ohio Right to Life as an elementary-school student, packing literature orders for the satellite chapters with really graphic photos in them. I knew how abortion was performed before I knew about sex. And I could tell you different types of abortions, the mechanics of that, when I was in elementary school and middle school. It wasn’t until I did an adoption at the age of 19 that I started rethinking some of those things.

Adoption was the only thing that I could consider because I had sinned by having sex outside of marriage as a teenager, and it was a redemptive practice. It was only after losing my child to adoption — and I used the word losing purposefully — that I started to think about how I was trapped in between these positive and negative messages: Wait a minute. You’ve been telling me that I am a hero and that I am a good person. So I don’t understand why I’m also someone that wouldn’t have been a good parent to my child.

I knew I would’ve been a good parent because I knew I loved my child. I knew I was a resourceful, hard worker. I knew all these things about myself. In trying to reconcile those two stories, I became critical of the fact that only two stories were being told. And so I decided to get two graduate degrees in women’s, gender, and sexuality studies, where I could ask those kinds of questions. And I got involved in adoption-related activism and started some support groups where I had the opportunity to talk to many birth parents.

Barrett implies that with the termination of parental rights, that experience is over. But I know that the termination of parental rights in adoption is only the beginning of a very complicated and ongoing, changing, lifelong experience that impacts not only me — the decision maker — but my relatives, my family, not to mention my child who was placed for adoption, and so on. One pro-life communication strategy is to push the idea that abortion has long-term impacts. That abortion can produce grief and loss and regret, and it can have a health impact. But you don’t see that kind of language when they talk about adoption.

Angela Tucker: I remember an adoptee talking to me about something she learned about her birth mother, which was that her birth mother found that placing her for adoption was so traumatic that her birth mother aborted all of her future pregnancies. The abortion was actually the more bearable option after placing a child for adoption.

The safe-haven laws and the baby boxes are prized on the adoption market because healthy American newborns are scarce. Some adoptive parents really would love to get a safe-haven baby specifically because they would prefer to have no connection with the biological moms. As an adoptee, that troubles me. Adoptees are four times likelier to attempt suicide, and that’s partly because of the anonymity of our birth parents, because of not knowing our roots, not knowing where we came from. And having loving adoptive parents doesn’t preclude us from wanting to know where we came from.

Kate: I can’t tell you how many times that I was told I was a hero for considering adoption. That kind of language: hero, champion for life, loving, selfless. But at the same time, this narrative — the one promoted by Amy Coney Barrett — positions pregnant women and birth mothers as people who are inherently deficient. They’re people who are inevitably going to be bad parents. They’re people who are so either morally, intellectually, or financially flawed that they need somebody to set parameters for them in terms of law and policy to help guide their decision.

And honestly, to use a really inflammatory word, the message from pro-life organizations is that we are also potential murderers. We must be restrained by these laws, because if they don’t show us the way, we are going to have an abortion. So when Justice Barrett talks about avoiding the obligations of motherhood and the consequences of pregnancy, she is tapping into a story that you hear all over our culture about how women who are considering adoption or considering abortion are frivolous. They’re irresponsible, that what they’re motivated by is to get out of their obligations.

And that they’re hypersexualized. That’s a racialized story as well.
Angela: Every time the abortion debate comes up, I get tons of messages from people who say things like what Candace Owens has tweeted before, which is that “it must have been hard for you to hear all these people talk about how worthless your life is and how you should have been murdered. How does this make you feel?” I get inundated with these messages. But what I learned from getting to know my birth mother is that she would’ve preferred to have parented me. She couldn’t because of poverty. As a Black woman, I feel even more targeted by that murderer rhetoric, because it’s what people assume my birth mother to be had she not chosen adoption for me.

And so when people ask me how I feel “since I wasn’t murdered,” the point is not whether or not I’m grateful that my birth mom didn’t abort me, it’s that she deserved to be able to make a choice.

Gretchen Sisson: When we’re looking at how women make pregnancy decisions around adoption, what we found is that women are not choosing between abortion and adoption the same way that the signs in the March for Life want you to believe that they are, where they cross out the B and put in the D to make “abortion” spell “adoption.” They make it sound like this is an easy switch that women are making. I have encountered almost no women that are choosing between those two things and weighing one against the other. But that doesn’t mean that those two things are unrelated.

Photo: Retailer

What we do see is that when you deny women access to abortion, most of them choose to parent. In research I did that drew on the Turnaway Study — 956 women seeking abortion, including 231 who were denied abortion because of gestational age — among women who were turned away from accessing abortions that they wanted, over 90 percent of them chose to parent. My colleagues see those numbers and say, “This is a minuscule number of people who are relinquishing for adoption. One hundred percent of these women wanted to have an abortion. Why are so many of them parenting?” From my perspective, I’m like, “Oh my gosh, 9 percent of them place for adoption compared to less than 1 percent of all women. This is a huge number.” So what we know is when you take away abortion, there will be more adoptions. But that’s a constrained choice, which is to say there’s no choice. When you take away an option, women do what they can with what’s left.

For most of those who continue their pregnancies and ultimately choose to relinquish parental rights, it is because they had intended to parent. They had been either planning on or hoping to have a certain amount of financial support, emotional support, partner support that either falls through or does not materialize by a certain point in their pregnancy. And then they turn to adoption when parenting does not seem tenable to them.

It is nine times out of ten a function of lack of financial resources that leads to the adoption. And for those people, when I ask how much money would you have needed to parent, if you intended to parent, it is usually a very small amount of money, under $5,000. And that is a reflection of our overall lack of social investment in families and parents.

Given who is disproportionately affected by banning abortion — those who have the least options in a state like Mississippi, those who would be unable to get on a plane to another state — what are the racial dynamics here of an imagined pipeline between banning abortion and adoptive parents?
Angela:  We all remember Amy Coney Barrett’s Supreme Court nomination hearing when she lined up all seven of her kids behind her, including her two Haitian kids, her Black kids, and actually committed microaggressions against them on national TV, saying that her daughter Vivian was so weak after they adopted her from Haiti, and they were told that she would never walk or talk normally. And now she deadlifts as much as the male athletes in her gym. And she added, “And I assure you, she has no trouble talking.”

At the time, you posted on Facebook, “Anyone notice how Amy Coney Barrett spoke of her biological kids in terms of their intellectual prowess and spoke of her adopted kids about their trauma history? Now this is a prime example of implicit bias. Unconscious racism. This is an example of white saviorism.” It went viral, and you got a lot of abuse.
Angela: Any time I post about transracial adoption and critique the practice or the industry, I get an overwhelming amount of emails and DMs saying, “Why can’t you just be grateful for what you’ve been given?”

There’s been a move in some states and federally to ban abortions for certain reasons, including supposed discrimination on the basis of race, gender, or disability. I remember the white congressman who evoked his adopted children to say that Planned Parenthood was “killing children who look like mine.” Barrett hasn’t said anything like that, but there’s a rhetorical implication for white adoptive parents here: How could I possibly be racist when I have two Black children?
Angela: We can’t just assume that all white parents are capable of raising Black and brown kids in our racial society. People like myself, transracial adoptees who are Black, raised by loving white parents, but have been cut off from my culture and have had to work really hard to regain my Black community in adulthood because it was not provided to me in my childhood.

Kathryn, I was rereading your book today and you talk about corresponding with a woman who’s desperate to adopt. She’s an Evangelical Christian and international adoption is closed to her because of crackdowns on exploitation. So she starts looking at babies relinquished under safe-haven laws. And she asks you, Kathryn, “Would it be wrong to attempt to talk a woman out of having an abortion and ask her to let me adopt the child instead?” You say, “Yes.” And then she quotes a friend who says, “‘When you take one of these children, you are literally saving them from the ghetto life in America.’” Crisis-pregnancy centers, of course, are part of the apparatus of this.
Kathryn Joyce: Back about 15 years ago, in response to the fact that not enough women, by their assessment, were relinquishing children for adoptions, a national adoption-lobbying organization got together with a Christian right anti-abortion group to put out a couple of pamphlets. The intention was helping train crisis-pregnancy centers talk more pregnant people into relinquishing children for adoption.

One of them had the title “Birthmother, Good Mother: Her Story of Heroic Redemption.”  The way for you — person who is pregnant out of wedlock, person who we do not consider worthy of considering keeping her own child — to be a good mother is to become a birth mother, which means to relinquish your parental rights. And, as the subtitle underscores, that this is the way you can redeem yourself, that you have something to redeem yourself for, that you have sinned, whether or not they’re going to use that word.

Crisis-pregnancy centers have had a checkered record when it comes to coercing people into choosing adoption. Some of the earliest ones were started decades ago by Leslee Unruh of Abstinence Clearinghouse. There were these stories of women being offered payments to relinquish children for adoption, all kinds of shady pressure. In other major crisis-pregnancy center networks, there were stories, in one case, of a woman and her partner. The woman was going into labor and she did not want to proceed with an adoption plan. And the crisis-pregnancy center was basically detaining her in their office while she was in labor, rather than helping her, enabling her to get to medical treatment.

Sometimes these forms of coercion can be really extreme. A lot of times, they’re more subtle. It’s that constant insinuation that You’re not good enough. You are not prepared for this. And that can be drummed home in really subtle ways, like making people fill out these long budget checklists that often include things that aren’t even normal expenses. Weighing it so that she’s going to come up short.

I remember when I was reporting my book, and I was reading a lot of adoption blogs, I would come across posts describing, “My orphan is out there. Someday there is going to be this mother and she’s going to die, or she’s going to otherwise not be able to keep her child. And this is the child that God is placing there for me.” It turned out they were not describing a child that has been born. They were describing a hypothetical child that God had placed in somebody else’s womb. This was meant to be, this was ordained. And when you have that sort of idea, you can’t really be thinking about the mother, or the parents as real people, with their own rights and agency.

Gretchen: I actually spoke with a birth mother who fell out with her daughter’s adoptive family over the Kavanaugh hearings, because her daughter was conceived as a result of sexual assault. Her daughter’s adoptive mother was so thrilled that they were getting this amazing, pro-life justice confirmed that she couldn’t make any space to talk about the way her daughter was conceived.

Angela: As the adoptee, it really definitely feels like I am a commodity — I’m both deeply desired and wanted and we’ll do illegal things to get you. And also, your ancestry, the people you come from, are worthless and they’re ghetto. It’s really confusing as an adoptee to sit in the middle of that. Thankfully, for me, I didn’t necessarily feel this because my parents truly showed love to my birth parents after we met them (I was in a closed adoption and didn’t find them until I was an adult). But I think about a couple of the youth that I’m mentoring right now and one person in particular, who is a Black boy with a white dad who is a cop who believes that Derek Chauvin did not murder George Floyd and wears Blue Lives Matter stuff.

Coming to terms with all of that leaves adoptees pitted in this middle of an argument of abortion versus adoption that, of course, as we’ve talked about, shouldn’t be conflated in the first place. Because adoption isn’t a solution to another issue.

Kate: What’s happening at the Supreme Court right now is that a bunch of people who don’t live my life, who don’t live Angela’s life, are using us as a tool to further their own agenda. They’re co-opting our lives and our stories.

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Amy Coney Barrett’s Adoption Myths